Cork in Portugal: the sustainable industry 


Sustainable quality products come with a cost

When thinking of Portugal, one might think of Lisbon, one of the world's most trendy city break destinations, or the Algarve region, where thousands of sun-hungry northerners pass their beach holidays every summer. One might also recall the booming housing sector, attracting private investors, retirees and corporate investors from all over the world. Some may get a bit closer to the subject of today's blog article and think of the Douro or Alentejo region, where some of the world's finest wines are produced. But not so many think of the Cork production, which still is one of the country's most important industries.

34% of the world's cork oak forests are in Portugal

Not only are more than a third of the world's cork oak forests in Portugal. When it comes to cork production, Portugal accounts for half of the world's cork production. Cork can only be extracted when the cork oak tree is 25 years old. The subsequent extractions only occur at intervals of about 10 years, and the extraction process can only be done between May and August. The very first harvest can only be used for several products, as the extracted cork is usually of poor quality. This first harvest, also known as 'virgin cork' or 'cortiça virgem' in Portuguese, is generally used for flooring, shoes or insulation.  Cork from a second or later extraction is then used for quality wine and champagne stoppers. This very time-extensive process of natural Cork production is the main reason for the high price of the end product.

The worldwide shortage of cork is a myth

If your last bottle of wine was sealed with a synthetic plastic or screw top stopper, then you may have been told that this is due to the worldwide cork shortage and reduced cork productivity for environmental reasons.

As a matter of fact, there are plenty of cork trees, mainly in Portugal and Spain, and they provide more than sufficient cork for the worldwide demand. The real reason why many wine producers now use plastic or other solutions is solely the price. While a quality cork wine stopper costs about 30 euro cents, the synthetic variations only costs 5.

Cork is a very sustainable product and its production is not only an industry in Portugal, but also a cultural inheritance. The cork oak forests are also true biodiversity hotspots: with 37 species of mammals, 160 species of birds and 25 species of reptiles living in Portugal's cork forests alone, the biodiversity of Portugal's cork oak forest equals the level of the Amazon or Borneo. Cork oak forests have unique characteristics that permit the extensive absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere and help to control erosion, regulate the water cycle and combat desertification and global warming.

Cork is not only used for wine stoppers

About 60% of all cork based production is used for wine stoppers. Cork's elasticity combined with its near-impermeability makes it the most perfect material for this purpose, especially because it hardly changes its structure when squeezed or pulled.

But due to its properties, cork is also used as a gasket material and is an essential element of badminton shuttlecocks. Because of the air bubbles inside the cork material, it is also used for thermal or acoustic insulation. As a matter of fact, due to people being more and more concerned about toxic elements in their living environment, cork is becoming a very popular insulation alternative to petrochemical insulation products. For example, mixing granules of cork into concrete, reduces thermal conductivity and increases thermal insulation of new-built homes.

And, we all know the cork bulletin boards as well as decorative floor and wall tiles. Last but not least, there are many decorative and souvenir items produced of Portuguese Cork, such as bracelets, drink and cooking coasters and wallets.

With sustainability being key to every modern industry, cork has a bright future

Cork is sustainable, recyclable and reusable. It is not necessary to cut the cork to extract its bark. It can be removed without damaging the tree and it regenerates afterwards. A plastic wine stopper emits 10 times more CO than a cork stopper. An aluminium one even more than 24 times. Follow the trend and think cork when building your new house, and when buying your next bottle of excellent Portuguese wine!

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